Active Video Games Can Get Kids Moving As Much As Being Outdoors

By Dan Peterson, TeamSnap's Sports Science Expert


Well, good luck Mom. The kids are home for the summer and you know that eventually there will be rainy days ahead. When the little Energizer bunnies can’t get outside to burn off energy, what can you do with them? 

According to a new study from the University of Tennessee, just pop in what’s known as an “active video game”. Not one of those where they melt into the couch with controller in hand, but rather one of a growing number of games that use the Kinect or Wii-U motion capture systems so they can move, jump and spin until they collapse from too much fun. 

Kids are supposed to get an hour per day of “moderate to vigorous” activity, which is usually not a problem out on a playground or running around the backyard. Being outside also gives them fresh air and reduces their omnipresent screen time. But when they’re inside for the afternoon, parents often wonder if video gaming comes close to providing that hour of movement to burn off excess calories and energy.

Hollie Raynor, director of the Tennessee’s Healthy Eating and Activity Laboratory and associate professor of nutrition, put the games to the test by measuring the activity levels of 16 kids, ages 5 to 8, during 20 minutes of unstructured play outdoors and 20 minutes of active gaming. With their parents’ consent, she attached three accelerometers to each child, one at the hip and one for each wrist. These sensors captured both upper and lower body movements to get a true picture of the amount, variety and intensity of their play in both settings.

First, the kids were released outside in a play area that included open fields, playground equipment, a climbable tree, and plenty of sports balls. They were told to “go play” for 20 minutes with no direction from parents or researchers. Their movement was captured by the accelerometers.

The next day, everyone moved indoors and played the Xbox 360 Kinect Adventures River Rush video game, which involves lots of full body movement, in front of a 40-inch television. Instead of sitting with a controller in hand, this game requires you to get up and move to accomplish the goal of moving your raft down the rapids.

Dr. Raynor compared the activity levels between the outdoor and video game exercise sessions and found that there was significantly more movement during a gaming session, especially in the lower body. 

"Our study shows video games which wholly engage a child's body can be a source of physical activity," said Dr. Raynor. "Previous studies investigating active video games had not investigated the energy expenditure of these games as compared to unstructured outdoor play. The purpose of the study was to compare energy expenditure to unstructured outdoor play."

The research has been published in the journal Games for Health.

Of course, getting kids outside is still the better option for overall health, but at least parents can be relieved to know that a rainy afternoon in front of the TV can be turned into some fun exercise for kids.

"No one else has used measures with this degree of accuracy in comparing active video gaming with outdoor play in young children,” said Dr. Raynor. “We're not saying video games should replace outdoor play, but there are better choices people can make when choosing the types of video games for their children.

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Dan Peterson is a recovering sports dad who is fascinated with sports science research, skill development and the athlete’s brain. He has written over 400 science-based articles across the Web and consults with parents, coaches and young players to help them understand the cognitive side of sports. You can visit him at Sports Are 80 Percent Mental and at @DanielPeterson.

Release Date: Jun 24 2015

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